This is the third of a six-part series on public policy and the trouble the U.S. government has with balancing its role in providing access, on the one hand, and policing content on the other. This part focuses on the failure of the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) to pass in 2006 and questions about what this means for the new Congress. The first two parts of this series are available here and here.
Because the U.S. Senate never addressed DOPA by the end of the previous Congress, this legislation is now back to square one, with the 410-15 vote an archive of last year's congress. Will a Democrat-controlled Congress revisit the bill, which obviously had strong bipartisan support in the House before? Andy Carvin with PBS points out the substantial concerns from Sen. Patrick Leahy and the Mark Foley scandal as distracting Congress from DOPA, particularly considering the resonance the Foley scandal had with the issues DOPA raised.
Then, when the bill's primary sponsor entered the final stages of a heated election race, Carvin said the ball was dropped on DOPA and may not be likely to be picked back up, especially considering that the representative who introduced it was not re-elected and that the bill was Republican-driven. "The question is whether the new Democrat leaders of Congress would look at the resulting public polling data and decide to enact their own DOPA-like legislation," Carvin writes.
The bill's critics are hoping DOPA will stay in the past, particularly in a non-election year and with a shift in focus for a new legislative body. However, DOPA itself may be gone, but the public sentiment against social networking site for fear of children is not. Child safety lobby groups are very active, as a recent New York Times story about video sharing sites points out. Journalist Brad Stone writes about Web site Stickam, which allows viewers to send out live feeds and have online video chats, even allowing anyone 14 or older to use the site. While the potential dangers on the site should be a concern, a spokesperson for child safety group WiredSafety was quoted as saying, "The only thing you get from the combination of Web cams and young people are problems. Web cams are a magnet for sexual predators."
These statements move beyond a concern to balance the safety of children with the potential benefits of a new form of communication into a dismissive argument that denies any possible benefit to these new communication technologies at all.
Meanwhile, a recent Pew Internet Group study revels that 55 percent of teenagers ages 12-17 who are online are members of a social network, with the number highest among older teens. Amanda Lenhart, one of the principal researchers for the project, says of the study, "There is a widespread notion that every American teenager is using social networks, and that they're plastering personal information over their profiles for anyone and everyone to read. These finds add nuance to that story - not every teenager is using a social networking website, and of those that do, more than half of them have in some way restricted access to their profile."
Congress, whether under Democrat or Republican leadership, is still not likely to neglect legislation that implies the inherently corrosive effects of the media.
Consider the September bill passing through the Senate to study the effects of screens on the cognitive abilities among children. This Children and Media Research Advancement Act, sponsored by Senators Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton, indicates a scientific interest but was framed in restrictive language, implying that the media must be having damaging effects on children.
Clinton was quoted as saying, "We are conducting a massive experiment on our kids, and parents have not gotten their consent;" while Lieberman was quoted as saying, "No one is looking out, in a systematic way, for the cumulative impact of today's newer electronic media on our children. The questions about the effects--positive or negative--of media on our children's health, education and development are too important to go unasked and unanswered."
While Lieberman is quoted as saying "positive or negative," the framing of the question certainly implies "negative." The bipartisan nature of many of these efforts have often been noted, such as with Joseph Lieberman's close relationship with the cultural conservative group the Parents Television Council. As Henry Jenkins writes, "Leiberman himself described William Bennett as 'my brother in arms, because we are engaged together in fighting the culture wars.' He explained, 'For the better part of two years, we have formed an unofficial, bipartisan partnership to coax, cajole, shout and shame the people who run the electronic media.' As former WWF superstar Mick Foley notes, 'whenever anyone accuses the PTC of being ultraconservative, he [Bozell] throws Joe Lieberman in their face.'"
However, the $90 million price tag for the Children and Media Research Advancement Act earned significant derision from critics toward Lieberman and even some skepticism from allies. The citizens group Citizens Against Government Waste
Further, the decision last year to raise the maximum FCC indecency fine from $32,500 to $325,000 indicates a more restrictive than free speech atmosphere, at a time when a greater diversity of voices and perspectives could be encouraged more fully than ever before.
And the indecency conversations have continued, even into the new Congress, as I wrote about a few days ago.
The aforementioned Parents Television Council has been one of the most active voices in this regard, encouraging boycotts and mobilizing FCC action against content that is deemed immoral or offensive. However, groups like the PTC have garnered significant political clout while also perpetrating frauds in the data they release about their power and reach, which led in 2002 to a $3.5 million out-of-court settlement with Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment for a variety of fraudulent claims made that led to several WWE advertisers pulling out, as Dave Meltzer wrote about back in the 15 July 2002 version of The Wrestling Observer Newsletter.
These restrictive decisions are being made alongside key debates about finding ways to expand access to content, creating inherent friction in both our legislative body and within the community surrounding the mass media industries.